Gratitude

I woke the other morning under a dark cloud. It started with a bad dream where I didn’t check on the side effects of my actions and I ended up with a bill for thousands of dollars that I didn’t have. The details of my dreams fade quickly, but enough of this one stuck around to shake me up. My morning routine includes a few minutes of quiet meditation where I focus on being thankful to prepare for the day, but before I could transition into that mode, my brain connected dots from that dream with reality.

Thoughts of projects I have yet to finish and personal tasks that have been lost to procrastination created a clatter in my mind that destroyed any hope of silence. I also seeded that storm cloud by whining about some minor health issues and my darkness began to grow quickly.

After drifting through a fog of typical morning preparation for the day, something Judy said snapped me out of my dark introspection. “Are you managing me?” I asked. Her answer was, “Yes.”

She had spotted the cloud and without referencing it, Judy was giving me space and working to keep my path clear of anything else that might make me go darker. That realization of what she was doing pulled me out of my dark cloud and onto another stream of thoughts beginning with the question: How often does she have to manage me?

Judy and I have been together since high school, so we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses well. I know when she needs space and when to jump in and help her and she does the same for me, but this felt different because I didn’t realize she was doing it until she told me. I couldn’t decide if I was more upset about needing to be handled or impressed with how good she had gotten at it. After some thought, I’m going with the latter because it’s no real surprise that I can’t do this alone.

That has brought me back to gratitude. I know that being thankful for what I have been given is critical to living a happy life. Unfortunately, there are times when I keep gratitude an arm’s length away. At those times, the funk that comes over me is emotional junk food—I know it’s not good for me, but I’m ingesting it anyway. A little funk is easy to digest and let pass, but too much and it affects me at the physical, emotional, and intellectual levels. The best way out is the cleansing power of gratitude.

We live in a world brimming with problems and, thanks to the internet living on our phones, the bad news pops up immediately via social media and news feeds. It’s easy to only see the bad and find only despair. I weep for humanity at the same time that I seek the good in people.

For thankfulness to work, it has to be very personal and specific. I have to focus on an act of kindness that my lovely wife has done for me like letting me be lazy last night and doing all the dinner cooking and clean up. Or a moment of laughter between friends at work is worthy material for gratitude. Instead of going down my list of unfinished task and seeing them as half-empty glasses, I can reverse those thoughts and see each as a gift. Challenges can be well-hidden presents; I just have to find the positive side—the growth and satisfaction that will come from accomplishing those tasks.

The broad thoughts of thankfulness help too, like the gift of a sunny day or my kids or my new life. The detailed ones are just more real, stick in my brain better, and push out the darkness.

If life is looking dark or the world too broken, try making a list of all those beautiful gifts in your life. Make them personal. Be specific. Be grateful. I bet it helps you, too.

Identity

During one of our weekend walks exploring San Francisco, Judy asked some tough questions of herself, “Am I the person I want to be? Who am I?”

Without getting too philosophical, these are questions that deserve time and thought. I think they help us focus our efforts and energy in life. Asking myself these questions sent me back to my youth to discover who I am today.

Growing up, I felt like I needed to do something huge, something that would change the world and affect every soul on this planet. My longing wasn’t for fame or fortune, I simply felt this was my destiny. Admittedly, I was a weird kid.

I had no idea what I was supposed to do or how I would do it. I was smart and a quick learner, but no genius. I had a natural talent for fixing things, but no sketches of life-altering inventions ever flowed from my fingers. I had a love for music, but my guitar playing caused my dog to walk away from me. How was I supposed to change the world with such meager gifts?

Over the past five decades, I’ve accomplished more than some and less than many. My choice in a life partner was brilliant and my kids impress me more and more each day as they evolve as adults, but my scope of universal change is tiny compared to the vision I had as a child. It’s difficult to define myself from within.

“So, what do you do?” Is a common opening question when we meet someone. What we do often defines who we are in our minds. Over the years, I’ve been a student, an entrepreneur, a software engineer, a father, a husband, and held many other minor titles. The truth is that I’m not any one of those roles that I have played and I’m more than the sum of them. So how do I answer those questions that my wife posed?

I don’t know.

That’s a disappointing answer, but it’s filled with truth. Most days, I’m happy with who I’ve become. I have great friends, a wonderful family, and I’m passionate about my work. For me, it’s okay to not have answers because I’m not done letting these questions drive my actions, but for the sake of this article, I’ll dig a bit deeper.

Am I the person I want to be?

Some days, yes. Others, not so much. I can always do better. I can be more inspiring or loving. I can give more back and choose to be less lazy. My standards are typically above my skills or energy, so I have to be careful with this question.

I’m not altogether sure who I want to be and that view changes based on the snapshot in time that I may have tried to define my future. The other question may be more fruitful.

Who am I?

At this moment, I’m a writer. That doesn’t define me fully—and pays no bills—but I enjoy this part of myself and it gives me a way to express my thoughts and feelings. I hope that what I write entertains or touches others and helps them in a small way.

When I finish this article and put down my iPhone (yes, I tend to write on whatever is nearby when inspiration hits and my iPhone is always with me), I’ll be someone else. I’ll call my mother and be the good son, chat with my sister and be a caring brother, or connect with my kids and be their dad. 

I think I am who I need to be in the moment depending on who I’m with at that time. My goal is to be the best me I can be. That sounds like a recruiting poster platitude, but it  also makes sense to me. If I’m not some grand figure that was created in a naïve vision of my youth, I can at least continue to grow and be there in small ways for those around me.

Maybe it’s the millions of small gestures that define us all. The person who changes the world does it by touching a handful of others and they in turn do the same. This planet certainly feels like a better place when I read about people helping people.

I can live with that answer. I am a contributor to the greater good. Some days I’m selfish and contribute very little and others I’m more magnanimous. I’m a constant work in progress.

Quality of Life

My father died before his 61st birthday—he was just 8 years older than I am now. My dad smoked too many cigarettes, ate too few proper meals, and enjoyed his beer more than he should have. He was more underweight than over and his once athletic body just gave out from lack of care.

My mother has survived over 30 years without her husband and is still going. The other day, I found myself wondering what it would be like if he were alive today also. I’d like him to see the new life I’ve made and the family that I have. Unfortunately, even if the doctors could have saved him back in ’84, his quality of life would have been miserable. He spent too many years neglecting his health and his body was too broken to ever recover completely. It makes me sad that my children never got to see what a remarkable man their grandfather was.

He was raised in the Depression era to be tough and to push through pain and he raised his children to do the same. The only time I was taken to the hospital was when I broke my wrist—other injuries were handled at home. Even when I sliced open the palm of my hand with a box cutter while working on a bathroom remodel, my dad just closed it up with medical tape fashioned into butterfly bandages. I’m sure it was a cut worthy of several stitches, but I was tough and didn’t think twice about his solution. Skipping the trip to the doctor was normal.

A month after I got married and moved out of the house, my dad played tough and skipped the hospital visit when he pushed through the pain of several small heart attacks. When my mother and his friends eventually forced him to seek medical help, his doctor said these attacks could have been going on for weeks. This landed him in triple bypass surgery, a stroke during recovery, and his last breath just three months later.

Whenever I’m feeling stubborn about scheduling an exam or medical test, I think about Fran Hoctor and how his tough behavior cost us his presence and it kicks me into action. Not always immediate action, as I did put off one or two tests for a handful of years. Stubborn as I am, I did manage to do the right thing and get caught up the past couple of months.

As far as health goes, I’m a blessed individual. I circle all the “no” answers on the “do you have” medical questionnaire list. The issues I have are terribly minor, but enough that the endocrinologist I went to offered some proactive measures with regard to diet and exercise, “Avoid dairy, gluten, and fruit…”.

I have never smoked, I keep my weight in check, enjoy a whisky or glass of wine now and again without excess, and I try to stay active and exercise. As for eating, I try to make good choices. Back in the late ’90s, I was a fast food junkie. I was gaining weight and living off caffeine for energy. Judy convinced me that we should get healthy and switch to a vegan diet, which we did—for about two weeks. Did you know that vegans don’t eat cheese? That was a deal breaker. I love cheese too much and decided that eating vegetarian was good enough. I have no problem making radical diet changes, but I’m not going to be a food martyr.

I’ve worked hard to keep my body in good running order so I could enjoy a long, healthy life. After the nine-year stint as a vegetarian, I was tired of avoiding meat and decided to just eat healthy without going to an extreme. Giving up bread and fruit feels like another extreme and I’m not convinced either is a real health issue for me.

There has to be a balance between maintaining good health and enjoying life. I’ll exercise more, so I can enjoy the occasional pizza or butter-infused French cuisine. I will not sacrifice my quality of life by abusing my body, but I also won’t trade it for a bland existence. I hope I’ve found a way to embrace the gusto my father had in his life without falling into his short-sighted failings. Today, I feel like I’m doing well with my balance.

Here’s to your good health and a life filled with joy, love, and quality. Cheers.

White Noise

This city isn’t quiet at night. There is a constant stream of noise throughout the sleeping hours, but I don’t mind. White noise has always been my ally.

I know plenty of people who love silence. It relaxes them and gives them a feeling of serenity. Too often, silence amplifies the smallest of noises for me—tiny sounds that shout in the echo chamber of the void. As the external noises of my environment fade, my brain grows more active and I start to drown in my own thoughts. It’s like being in a movie theater where you can’t hear people whispering during the action sequences of the movie, but in the quiet dramatic scenes, a whisper becomes a complete distraction. Without white noise, my brain fills with my own whispers. Whispers that I am powerless to silence.

I’ve always thought of my ability to drink in all the sights and sounds of my environment as a blessing. It made me more observant and quicker to gather information in a classroom. There is a curse as well and it comes into play when I lose control of the onslaught of input and the noises from outside and within overwhelm me. It’s at those moments that I become paralyzed. I fail to make any progress because my brain can’t concentrate on one path to follow.

I used to sit in my Texas backyard to get some fresh air and try to clear my head. It was relatively quiet—in Houston, you quickly learned to ignore the drone of air conditioning units as the price to surviving the heat and humidity—but I couldn’t focus unless I turned on our pool waterfall. The rush of water over two tons of rocks created an intricate symphony of sounds that quieted the cross chatter in my head.

White noise consists of sounds that don’t require my action or attention. When I would work in my home office with family around, every creak, conversation, or drip would distract me—even with closed doors. Every sound screamed, “handle me now!” I’d escape to a coffee shop or restaurant for the quiet of bustling activity and carefree conversations. It wasn’t my building decaying or my family talking, so it was glorious static.

Our San Francisco apartment is in a busy area of Pacific Heights, with both a hospital and a fire station within ear shot and the traffic of Van Ness two blocks downhill. I was concerned at first that our city life would too dramatic a change without the residential quiet we had become used to, but the chaos has become glorious background music.

It’s just one more gift of our life change: beautiful white noise.

Worthy

Beating myself up for not accomplishing what I planned or simply doing a piss-poor job of it is a hobby of mine.

What triggers these episodes varies. Sometimes it’s just a silly little thing like wasting money by forgetting to use food before it goes bad. Other times it’s major mistakes related to family or career. The problem is that the scale of the mistake is not proportional to the self-punishment. And when one of these triggers click, the collapse is fast.

This is not full-on depression, an enemy that Matt Gemmell recently described so well—I battled that foe 15 years ago and am wary of its return. Still, these dark moments are not harmless. They obscure the light and warmth. They make me stumble and slide down a pit of despair where I find more reasons to remain there. They cause me to reject the help of others.

Because I’m not worthy of their affection.

Sometimes I just want to give up on the day or a single task, but other times these dark thoughts thrive. I slide deeper into the darkness where I am blind to the worth of my existence. I see no hope for my future, no reason why anyone would want a loser like me around.

I hide it well—I’ve been practicing this since before the Beatles broke up—and still smile and joke around. My wife, Judy, sees through my facade and suffers more because of it. She knows how to gently remind me of all my blessings and to wait for me to let go of the trigger. I honestly don’t know if I’d be here without her.

The saving grace of my dark thoughts is that they don’t last long—sometimes only hours and rarely more than a day. I’ve also learned to recognize them and try to maintain some perspective.

“You’re doing it again, Hoctor. This is all bullshit that you are using to build a false reality. When it’s over, you’re going to be annoyed that you wasted any time on this crap.”

Unfortunately, knowing that I’m sliding into the pit doesn’t empower me to walk away from this darkness—there first must be punishment. Reality is out of reach and I’m not worthy of happiness just yet. Maybe later.

This all has something to do with records playing in my head that say, “I could have done that better. I’m underachieving and should perform to my potential. Don’t screw up again; you may not get a second chance.”

Countering these negative records is the sound of Judy’s voice saying, “You need to stop beating yourself up! You don’t deserve this kind of pain. You are a good person!” But I’ve tried so often to quiet these demons without success. They are like stains that most of the time I ignore, but when pointed out, I can’t stop staring at them. I look to the positives in my life and see how wonderful they all are, but those damned stains are right there.

I’m ready to let go of this unhealthy behavior. The solution that my brain supplies is wrong and just as messed up as these episodes: Just do everything right, which is an impossible solution. It’s also counter to learning from my mistakes—a method that has worked really well for me.

They say that the sane person questions if he is crazy and the crazy person defends his sanity. I guess I can take comfort in my sanity and just work every day to serve others and stay out of my own head. I need to feel worthy.